Chile Before the Quake

Text & Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo

“When will we start learning and caring about places before disasters?”
someone wrote on Twitter this weekend in response to the news about the earthquake in Chile.

I understand the impetus of the question, but there’s something naive about it as well.

There are so many places to learn and care about, so many people to know.

That’s one of the reasons why I travel. Though I know plenty about lots of places, I find that I only really begin to understand them when I’m there. And once I’ve visited, I become invested in these places in a way that doesn’t happen to me with those places I still don’t know with my feet or my eyes or my ears or nose… yet.
That’s what I thought about after news of the quake.

I visited Chile in late 2008, and was moved by this sliver of a country. For one thing, it’s beauty exemplified: flawless blue sky stretching out over glacier-fed water in Torres del Paine, the view around each switchback of trail more beautiful than the one before it.

It’s a true beauty, but not an easy one. Standing here, almost as far south as one can be, the wind blows straight through you with an impersonal, punishing persistence. You learn to accept that what is beautiful must often be appreciated not unadulterated, but in its natural, wild, often messy state.

There were other reasons I was moved by Chile. Its recent history was palpable without being oppressive, its past real and present without having a stranglehold on its sense of now or possibilities for the future. The people I met were ambitious and creative; they were also honest about themselves and their country. “We don’t know how to market ourselves,” one tourism industry professional told me. “We have everything, but you can’t say that in an advertisement.”


For more on Chile:

*My article about Google’s Person Finder app and its use in the Chile quake on MatadorChange.

*Matt Scott, one of Matador’s extraordinary and efficient interns, put together our Chile Focus Page today, which is an archive of all the articles we’ve published about Chile since we launched in 2006.

*For more Chile before the quake photos, check out my Chile set on Flickr.

Walking Among the Dead at Woodlawn

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo and Julie Schwietert Collazo

We’ve visited many cemeteries while traveling: the Petit Family Cemetery on the land where I grew up in South Carolina, where the graves of slaves are indicated with simple rocks.

Cementerio Colon in Havana, Cuba, where the sister of Francisco’s son is buried.

The local cemetery in Mompox, Colombia, at night, during a ceremony honoring the dead, candles flickering on tombstones and families holding hands, some crying, some talking quietly, some entirely silent and meditative.

The municipal cemetery in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where ostentatious monuments marking the final resting place of former governors and famous families draw attention from the old crypts, cracked open by decay, displaying bones on the back retaining wall of the cemetery.

New Orleans’ St. Louis Cemetery

a cemetery in southern Chile

It’s not that we have a fetish for the dead. But there’s something illustrative about a place, a culture, and its people that can be narrated without words when you visit a cemetery.
Perhaps you’ve visited cemeteries on your travels, too, or stopped at the graves of the famous dead to honor them or simply say you’d been there.

But like us, you probably haven’t spent much time at the cemetery in your hometown.

Woodlawn Cemetery, one of New York City’s cemeteries, is located in the north Bronx in an area that was considered rural back in 1863, when the cemetery was founded. More than 300,000 people have been buried at Woodlawn since then, and many of them constitute a Who’s Who list of American public life.

We visited recently:

The tomb of Miles Davis

The mausoleum of Augustus Juilliard, founder of The Juilliard School

The tomb of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an abolitionist and advocate of women’s rights, famous for writing The Declaration of Sentiments

The tomb of Joseph Pulitzer, the so-called father of journalism. Founded Columbia University’s School of Journalism and the Pulitzer Prize.

The modest tomb of Ralph Bunche, who, among many other accomplishments, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950, the first African American to receive the honor.

What cemeteries have you visited on your travels and what have they taught you?

How to Use an ATM in Chile

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo

When was the last time you used traveler’s checks?

I know; I can’t remember either.

These days, you can find cash machines around the world.

The ubiquity of ATMs doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to use them, though.

On my recent trip to Chile, I was embarrassed to ask colleagues to loan me cash when I couldn’t make a withdrawal from a series of ATMs. I knew I had money in the bank–that couldn’t be the problem. I read Spanish, so I was pressing the right series of buttons. Why couldn’t I get any cash?

An amused saleswoman watched as I punched buttons and cursed an ATM. She called me over to her kiosk. “It happens to all foreigners,” she said.

The problem was that I kept looking at the ATM–which seemed exactly the same as the machines back home–and going through the same rote motions of button pushing that I use in the US. Thus, I kept missing the option at the bottom left of the screen: “Conduct Foreign Transaction.”

That’s it.

So that’s how you use an ATM in Chile.

It’s also how you slow down and remember how to be present in every moment.

Photo: BigBlue (Flickr creative commons)

“When I was 31, it was a very good year…”

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo & Julie Schwietert Collazo

As the last two weeks of 2008 spin towards history, I find myself in bitingly cold New York City, where I’m wrapped in at least two layers of clothes by day and sleeping under two comforters at night.

New York has been my home since I moved here in 1999 after graduating from college, accepting an internship, and deciding to stay. It’s a city I love for a thousand reasons at least.

But in 2008, I didn’t spend a lot of time here. It was a very good year for travel–the best yet–and now that I’m finally settling down at home for a period of more than a week, I’m sorting through the year’s (and a 250 GB hard drive’s) photos, stories, and memories.

Here are a few I wanted to share with you….

JANUARY, Cuba/South Carolina, Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Puebla, Tijuana, San Diego, Pacific Coast Highway, and San Francisco:
Francisco and I started the new year apart, he with family in Cuba and I with family in South Carolina.

We met up at our part-time home in Mexico City, made quick trips to Cuernavaca and Puebla, crossed the border, and then drove the Pacific Coast Highway before…

We practiced settling for a while in this city where we met each other and where we both feel at home. We saw a Gonzalo Rubalcaba concert, watched old buildings be demolished and observed the new contour of this city begin to take shape.

MARCH, Mexico City & New York:
A split month, half in el DF and half in New York. In DF, I’m working on an assignment. In NYC, I’m a passionate observer of my own neighborhood.

APRIL, New York, Washington, D.C.:

It’s spring in the city, one of the very best times of year for a New Yorker. But I’m getting restless. I organize a trip to Washington, D.C. for my mom’s birthday.

Francisco and I also meet fellow Matador editor and the amazingly talented photographer, Lola Akinmade. Still, there are stories all around, as there always are, no matter where we are.

MAY, Cuba:

I visit Cuba for the first time since Fidel handed power over to his brother, Raul. Of seven or so visits to Cuba since 2005, this is the most special one, filled with incredible moments.

I interview Chinese Cubans, spend hours with a Cuban musicologist, & work on a documentary about Juan Antonio Picasso.

Francisco’s son and I go to Mariel, where Francisco set off from Cuba in 1980. We visit Cojimar and Hemingway’s home. And I celebrate Mother’s Day with Francisco’s mom and the mother of his son.

JUNE, New Orleans:

Francisco and I meet up in New Orleans to volunteer with the Culinary Corps and write about New Orleans. Seeing the state of New Orleans three years after Hurricane Katrina reminds me why traveling and stories are important & why I believe so passionately in both.

JULY, Colombia:

A full month in Colombia, with the bulk of our time spent in Mompox, where we meet the coolest kids in the world and begin making plans for an after-school program for them.

We also visit Cartagena, Santa Marta, Taganga, and Barranquilla.

AUGUST, Guadalajara, Mexico:
Back home in Mexico, we also visit Guadalajara on assignment. Not only does Sally Rangel and the staff of Villa Ganz set a totally new standard for service and hospitality, we discover that Guadalajara is quite possibly the only city where we’ve enjoyed every single meal we’ve eaten in restaurants. We were also fortunate to participate in and interview others who attended the Iluminemos Mexico march for peace.

SEPTEMBER, Perote and Veracruz, Mexico:

Perote: The town that tourism forgot. Not for long, if we have anything to do with it. Along with our friend, Carmen, we toured the San Carlos prison, visited an ostrich and orchid farm, dreamed about opening a bed and breakfast in an abandoned hacienda in the middle of a corn field at the base of some mountains, and found ancient pottery sherds just littering the side of the road as we drove up into the mountains. We also happened upon a local boxing match.

We drank strong coffee and had my palm read in Veracruz.

OCTOBER, Mexico City & Oaxaca, Mexico; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba:

October was all about connection.

We met Matador member Teresita and her husband, Ibis, at our home in Mexico City, reconnected with my old friend, Arely, and her husband Ivan at an airport restaurant, and visited with weavers at their home and interviewed protesters in Oaxaca.

I also traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to report about the military detention facility there.

I could have spent weeks there. In any event, I have a notebook full of stories that I’d like to write.

NOVEMBER, NYC, Washington, D.C., Chile:

NYC: To vote. Of course.

Washington, D.C.: To blog live from NPR on election night.

Chile: The press trip of a lifetime: 7 days. Santiago, Valparaiso, Punta Arenas, Torres del Paine. Cordero (lamb). But most of all… incredible people: Roberto, Francisco, Andres, Paloma, Carolina… que buenos son!

DECEMBER, Puerto Rico:
Francisco and I moved to Puerto Rico (shuttling back and forth between the island and NYC) in 2005 and left for good last December. While we had no active plans to return for a visit, our friends Wally and Marina asked us if we wanted to take care of their dogs for a couple weeks while they went on a much-needed and deserved vacation.

It was nice to see the sun every morning, to feel it on my skin, to watch as it penetrated just-rained skies and made light shows with rainbows, and to collect the grapefruit it ripened and scattered the ground with.

As visitors, we also went to places we’d never visited as residents, including the small island of Culebra and the town of Guanica, where the US invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War 210 years ago.


As I write this, I begin to realize that everything important is left out. It’s the people and the stories, and there’s a hundred folks at least. And for every person, a hundred stories.

I haven’t forgotten a single one of them. The stories are on the way….

Why I’m Not Opposed to Press Trips

Text & Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo

This time last week, I was in Chile, sitting at the base of the most amazing mountains I’ve ever seen in my life, marveling at the fact that the clouds that had been hanging around for the preceding two weeks had disappeared as my colleagues and I rolled into town.

“Life is SO good,” I thought to myself. “I have the best job in the world!”

“I dunno; I kinda feel guilty,” one of my colleagues said about the trip after we polished off another pricey, hours-long, multi-course dinner in an upscale restaurant in Santiago. “Don’t,” I said, relishing the lemon sorbet palate cleanser that had been set before me. He looked at me dubiously.

“First of all,” I continued, “a press trip–as amazing as it is–actually is WORK. And don’t forget that. It’s not mucking port-a-potties or paper pushing, that’s for sure, but it IS work.”

I paused for another mouthful of lemon sorbet.

“You get up at 6 AM each morning, you’re on the road until midnight at least, and you need to be gathering article material all day long.” Pause. “Second,” I said, swirling the last bite of sorbet around on my spoon, “the sponsor really wants you here. And they expect something out of it. Don’t forget that either,” I concluded, as I laid the spoon down.

What is a press trip?

As the name suggests, a press trip is a trip–usually two to seven days in length–that is sponsored by a tourism bureau, a hospitality industry provider, or an advertising agency and which is arranged specifically for writers and journalists. The goal of the trip is to inform writers about the destination and its attractions by giving them first-hand experience of a place. The sponsor or host of the trip typically expects that the writer will produce one or more feature-length articles about the destination in order to increase exposure and stimulate tourism in that area.

The nature of press trips varies considerably. Many press trip sponsors pay all expenses for the trip: roundtrip airfare to and from the destination, lodging, meals, activities, and gratuities. Other press trip hosts pay for all expenses except airfare. Clearly, the intention of the sponsor is to show the media who are on the trip the best facets of their country or city, and they will go out of their way to impress writers and journalists, putting them up in 5 star hotels, taking them to luxurious restaurants, and offering them activities that most writers would find impossible to enjoy on their meager salaries.

I know plenty of writers who are opposed to press trips. They feel that press trips are artificial. They argue that writers can’t possibly get an objective sense of a place–be it a restaurant or a hotel–if someone else is footing the gasp-inducing bill. They contend that hospitality providers are on their best behavior for press trip participants, and that writers are gently coerced to write favorable articles in return for the incredible free experiences they enjoy.

But having participated in several press trips, hosted by very different sponsors and in very different places, I have to say that those arguments are not only weak; they’re untenable.

First, if you’re a writer with integrity, you will write articles that convey your actual experiences, not some glowing, polished, barely concealed sales pitch that is at odds with what you saw and learned.

In Chile, we were toured around a resort that boasts the largest manmade pool in the world… right on the ocean (which, by the way, you couldn’t see). As we tooled around the pool on a motorized boat and stepped out onto an artificial beach, en route to an underwater bar with an exotic fish aquarium, I could barely conceal how appalled I was. In my mind, it was an environmental, social, and cultural monstrosity, and there’s no way I’ll write anything positive about it.

Second, if you’re a responsible writer, you won’t rely only on the programmed elements of the trip itself to provide you with information and insight into the destination. In fact, you’ll use the contacts you make (you ARE making contacts, right?) to gather more information on the ground than you ever could have gathered from afar. For example, while I was in Chile, I had questions about safety for travelers. I mentioned this to my sponsor, who was able to arrange an interview with the Sub-Secretary of the Interior of Chile. It was a contact I would have been unlikely to have made on my own, and the Sub-Secretary provided me with vital information and insight that will enhance some of the articles I write about the country.

Third, hospitality providers are rarely even aware that you are a writer or journalist being sported about the country, and even if they are, line staff rarely recognize the implications of treating you with the same surly attitude that characterizes their interaction with any other guest. The service at our all-inclusive resort in Torres del Paine was pretty atrocious, especially for the price, and there’s no way I could or would squeeze some glowing review out of my experience there. Even when your sponsors give hospitality providers a heads-up that their incoming guests are VIPs, it’s impossible for them to control hotel desk agent or waiter behavior. True colors will eventually shine through. If you’re an astute observer, you’ll see them and take note. But if you’re punch drunk on your third free cocktail, you’re not going to see them. That’s not the sponsor’s fault; it’s yours.

Press trips give you first-hand experience and knowledge of a place. They give you the opportunity to meet people who can answer questions you’d otherwise be tempted to just Google. They give you, if YOU are responsible and resourceful, contacts that you can leverage over the course of your career.

Press trips also give you boundless opportunities to write about a destination based on your experiences. Those articles don’t need to be positive–and shouldn’t be– unless your experiences were positive. But the outcome of your experiences largely depends upon you. Are you a good listener? Do you ask questions that help you see the place for the complex, nuanced country that it is? Are you able to collect the stories that even your sponsors may not see, the human interest stories that really tell about the place you’re visiting? You owe it to the sponsor–and to yourself–to sit down at the end of the trip or within a specified timeframe afterwards, to talk about your experiences, the sponsor’s expectations, and the articles you expect to write and publish based on the trip.

Press trips don’t need to be sleazy. They’re only uncomfortable if you’re viewing the trip as an all-expenses paid vacation rather than part of your job. Keep your eyes and ears open, keep your cocktail consumption to a respectable minimum, and don’t check your critical sensibilities at immigration. Press trips can be incredible experiences for you and the sponsor. Both of you share the responsibility for making sure that’s the case.